There was more to Johnnie Cochran than the flamboyant courtroom persona he became famous for during the O.J. Simpson trial 21 years ago.
The Louisiana native could be contemplative and reserved and, when he was with his wife and three children, jovial and affectionate. The private and the public side of Cochran, who died in 2005 at the age of 67 of a brain tumor, are explored in the new FX limited series “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.”
The drama, which debuts Tuesday, co-stars Detroit native Courtney B. Vance as Cochran, a complicated and fascinating larger-than-life figure. The cast also includes Oscar-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson, John Travolta as attorney Robert Shapiro, Sarah Paulson as prosecutor Marcia Clark and Southfield native Selma Blair as Kris Jenner. But Vance’s performance is already garnering critical acclaim, with many calling the Detroit Country Day and Harvard University graduate, a commanding scene-stealer — much like the man he is portraying.
“Johnnie Cochran is iconic,” said Vance, 55, at a recent Television Critics Association press panel in Pasadena, California, promoting the series. “I didn’t trap myself in the image of the iconic figure of him, of Johnnie Cochran. I tried to do whatever research I could and then tried to get out of the way, so the audience could get involved in the story.”
But Vance, who has appeared in everything from “Scandal” to “ER,” is known for getting to the heart and soul of his characters. It’s one of the reasons the Tony Award-nominated actor, who has a twin son and daughter with his wife of 19 years, actress Angela Bassett, enjoyed exploring Cochran’s quieter and more familial sides, he said.
“Johnnie Cochran became the man we know him as to this day because of this trial,” said Vance, adding that he, himself, wasn’t allowed to watch TV as a kid growing up on the city’s west side. “I think that’s what happens when you put something on television. If it weren’t on television, I mean, it’s human nature. People, not just Johnnie, started playing for the camera.”
“One of the most important things, the developments in the trial, was when the jury consultant talked to everybody about what the case was about,” Vance added. “And so many people just didn’t listen to him. To them, the case was about race and image and fame. But none of those things had mattered up until the point it was on television and suddenly, this case took us in a whole different direction as a society.”
Although Vance’s children, who are not quite 10, are too young to watch “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” Vance said the series is geared toward millennials who may not realize the impact the O.J. Simpson trial has had.
“We went through it, we lived through it,” Vance said. “You know, some of us more day-to-day than others. But, you know, I think that’s our job, to tell the stories so that people who weren’t there can understand. I mean, a lot of it, I look at it and go, ‘Did that really happen?’ You know, you can’t write it. I mean somebody wrote it. But you can’t make this stuff up and I’m really excited to hear what they think, you know, the people who weren’t born then.”
Mekeisha Madden Toby is a Los Angeles-based TV critic and writer.